By Valerie Woods
As per a letter dated July 12, 2019, the media is being threatened with a possible lawsuit by the Prime Minister if the media republishes, broadcasts or repeats in any form the statements that were filed in court by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The court filing of arguments in this case is a matter of public record.
The Prime Minister has stated the statements are unfounded. If they are unfounded, will the Prime Minister and his lawyer take the FTC to court for defaming his character? Why does he choose instead to silence the local media in reporting on the very content that he, the Prime Minister, also revealed during his press conference the day before on July 11th?
Is it that the media was invited to cover an official government press conference but are now being given a gag order to not report on the contents of that same press conference? And will we as a society accept this?
The statements from the FTC filed in a US court relate to the Sanctuary Bay Belize scam, reported as the largest fraud case in the history of Belize and the FTC. Belizeans can access Google or YouTube and pull these documents down in full detail for themselves. Belizeans can replay the Prime Minister’s press conference and hear him repeat the statements and deny their veracity.
Therefore, when the media is threatened in an attempt to stifle reporting on these serious and scandalous allegations, it is a dangerous precedent for democracy, transparency, accountability, and an abuse of power to the Belizean public. Silencing the media on reporting it raises several questions about the state of our democracy.
First, the Prime Minister’s attorney is from the Prime Minister’s law firm Barrow & Williams who was the law firm on record for the Sanctuary Bay Belize enterprises. One can understandably question if a conflict of interest exists here.
Second, the Prime Minister rushes to use the swift arm of the law firm in an attempt to not have any of the statements made against him broadcasted but does not do so for the other members and officials of his UDP government who are also named in the court document. The media, therefore, has a right to know if the court document can be reported on as long as it does not broadcast those arguments that name the Prime Minister himself. And if so, is it that reporting on the statements involving all other UDP government officials is fair game?
Instead of threatening the media with a lawsuit, why didn’t the Prime Minister and his Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Trade call for an inquiry into what transpired to have caused this largest real estate and consumer fraud to occur in Belize? Why have they not called for an inquiry to investigate which officials or authorities, if any, had knowledge of this suspicious investment? What measures will be put in place to ensure that investments in Belize are safer and that this does not reoccur?
There is also a video of the Sanctuary Bay Belize development that showcases a former CEO in the Ministry of Trade giving the assurances of the current government support to the investment project. Therefore, when the former Governor of the Central Bank of Belize issued an e-mail (as was reported at the Prime Minister’s press conference) that suggested fraudulent transaction(s) may be at hand at Sanctuary Bay, why didn’t the Prime Minister, his Ministry of Finance and/or Ministry of Trade inquire about this in the interest of the government and the protection of the reputation of investing in Belize?
It is also interesting that the US Embassy in Belize has inserted itself in the call of caution in reporting on these public court documents. The USA would never sanction its own press on reporting on publicly filed court documents and it should not be encouraged to do so in an independent Belize.
Freedom of the press to report on official documents is a hallmark of a free society and should be respected by all governments. When journalists and the media are threatened with lawsuits because they are reporting on publicly filed documents, it is a blatant example of a government that has failed miserably in accountability and transparency with so many scandals over the past 10 years and is operating with impunity.
The Opposition Party has called out the government on this. The Belize Chamber of Commerce, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize, the network of NGOs, the youth groups and each of us should be writing, rallying or sending strong messages to our area representatives and the government of Belize that we will not stand for this.
This country has had many decades of scandals by both major parties and has suffered increasing violent crimes over the years. This past week has been yet another tragic one. Tough lessons should have been learnt by now. Are we as a nation now numb both to crimes and scandals and simply don’t care anymore? Are we not angry enough to demand change?